History of the United States (F. Durpaire)

At a time when, at the rate of globalization, the world is living with its eyes on United States While the crisis and the emergence of China are calling into question its hyperpower, it seems legitimate to turn to the history of this nation which is often seen, in France, through the prism of anti-Americanism and the denunciation of its cultural, economic and political hegemony. François Durpaire invites us to explore this history, in his "Que sais-je?" ".

The author

François Durpaire has a doctorate and associate degree in History, now teaching at the University of Cergy Pontoise. He is a historian enjoying high media visibility, being often invited as a specialist on the United States in television news, news channels or talk shows, especially since the election of Barack Obama in 2008 on which he wrote a biography. As a researcher, he is a member of the Center for North American History Research at the University of Paris 1-Panthéon-Sorbonne. Epistemologically, it seems to fit into the process of global history. F. Durpaire is therefore a young, dynamic researcher who is part of an innovative historiographical approach, and is used to adapting his discourse to the general public.

The author starts from the principle that the lack of knowledge of the history of the United States in France is at the origin of a misunderstanding, whereas these two countries have many things in common. The guiding principle of his book, which in accordance with the spirit of the works "Que sais je?" "Must be synthetic and encyclopedic, is to place the unity-diversity relationship as the driving force of the history of the United States.

Origin of unity: towards the formation of the United States

Before the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620 and the landing of Protestants, North America was populated by Native Americans, whom we usually call American Indians, and who left an indelible imprint on American toponymy ( Chicago, Ohio, etc.). Gradually, with the English and Irish migrations and the forced arrival of African slaves, 13 colonies were formed, under the authority of the English crown. This authority was strengthened after the defeat of 1763: the English had a real empire in North America.

Unfortunately for them, the 13 colonies, not represented in Parliament, aspire to autonomy and are gradually conquered by liberal ideas. Tired of unpopular reforms, the 13 colonies decided to create an assembly and then opted for independence on July 4, 1776. The British are not being conciliatory: it is the beginning of the American War of Independence. From 1778, France came to the aid of the 13 colonies, which finally gained victory in 1783.

The drafting of the Constitution began in 1787, a process during which a question arose, which would become a constant in American history, concerning the place of the federal state and the degree of autonomy of the federated states. The compromise is delicate: many institutions from the local level to the federal level are put in place to promote the balance of power, and an elected president will ensure the unity of the nation. Peculiarity of the American system, the lobbies are considered essential to democracy and constituting another form of popular will.

Almost continuously in the 19th century, the border with the United States was pushed west, thanks to several factors. The discovery of gold in 1849 spawned the formation of boom towns, in which authority was difficult to establish, and gave rise to the myth of the Old West. The development of means of transport, such as the railroad, combined with strong European migrations, are the driving forces behind this conquest. This territorial extension is done to the detriment of the Mexican neighbor as well as the Indians. These were definitely defeated at the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890.

From war to crisis: the union in reconstitution

The United States is crossed by a great North-South divergence. The North is urban and industrial, the South is rural, marked by the cultivation of cotton and the practice of slavery. The rift widened, until in 1861 South Carolina proclaimed its secession, along with 6 states. The more seasoned southern states initially dominate the northern states. The latter, by their demographic and technological advantage, turned the tide in Gettysburg and defeated their southerners in 1865. The Civil War is considered as a foreshadowing of the total wars of the 20th century: large number of victims, incredible violence caused by the use of new weapons.

At the end of the war, the nation must be united, ensure the application of the abolition of slavery in the southern states: the federal state emerges strengthened. The time came for the massive migrations of Europeans, the arrival of Jews, Slavs, Italians: from the diversification of immigration arose the idea (or rather the myth) of the melting pot. The flag and a set of values ​​(individualism, capitalism) unite all these Americans. The United States is gradually asserting itself on the international scene, the trigger really being its participation in the First World War. In the aftermath of the conflict, America enjoys strong growth and unprecedented enthusiasm. A craze quickly stopped, by the serious economic crisis of 1929, with disastrous consequences: the banks closed, activity shrank.

Power in unity, unity in power

The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, who would become one of the most popular presidents of the United States, was a turning point in the history of the United States. He is the one who, through his policy of stimulus and his famous New Deal, strengthens the prerogatives of the president and the federal state. The author attaches particular importance to the social situation of this period, particularly marked by farmers fleeing land erosion (Dustl Bowl) and the migrations of blacks to the industrial north.

The internal problems resolved, the rising power must face an external danger: Japan, then in full expansion in Asia. The United States went to war after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. At the cost of heavy losses, an intense mobilization of industrial, economic (armament factories) and technological (atomic bomb) resources, the United States The United States and their allies overcame the Axis forces in 1945. The other American victory was on the cultural, intellectual and economic level: American culture (jazz, cinema) prevailed and shone, its economic power is unmatched and many scientists and intellectuals are now in the United States.

Confronted with the rise of the USSR, the United States is placing itself as a protector of the free world: it is the start of the Cold War. In this context, the 1950s were marked by an unhealthy fear of communism, which McCarthyism perfectly illustrates. Senator Mac Carthy says he has the names of members of the US administration who are also sympathizers or members of the Communist Party. Many artists (Charlie Chaplin), scientists, intellectuals will also undergo this real witch hunt.

The 1960s were marked by numerous internal oppositions and major societal changes. First of all, there are the growing demands of blacks who, still deprived of certain civil rights, are rallying around great figures, such as Martin Luther King. It is also the rise of the hippie movement, born out of a challenge to the consumer society that established itself after the war. The social dimension constitutes a very interesting and innovative angle of F. Durpaire's work: room is made for women, minorities, blacks, the question of identity.

From the end of the cold war to America today

The United States, undermined by internal social opposition, regained self-confidence in the 1980s during the two terms of Republican Ronald Reagan: “America is back! ". Reagan’s intransigent policies were arguably one of the causes of the demise of the USSR, leaving America alone in command of the world. Not for long, however: the 2000s made Americans realize that they can no longer decide on their own and take into account the multipolar character of a recomposing world.

The recent period is also a turning point internally. From now on, the United States, considered as an Anglo-Saxon country, must deal with minorities that will soon become the majority, as shown by the demographic dynamism of the Hispanic population. A "post-racial" and mixed America with various emerging powers: these are the challenges of tomorrow.

Our opinion

The character both encyclopedic and synthetic at first seems entirely successful. The whole of American history is remarkably swept up, in a very accessible book. Some will point out some factual gaps and sometimes date errors, but doing a synthesis requires making choices depending on the sensitivity of the author. The author's simple, limpid handwriting makes it easy to read and accessible to the general public.

One of the great strengths of the book lies above all in the historiographical dimension. Much attention is given to the views of historians on important aspects of American history: these references are essential for those wishing to read further. In addition, the author attaches particular importance to major societal issues, social developments, and also the question of American identity.

This "Que sais-je" is therefore a very good introduction to American history and invites us to explore even more of a history that is richer than it seems.

History of the United States, by François Durpaire. Que sais-je, PUF, January 2013.

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